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Meet Citizen Kane 2.0

“Consider these efforts now planned for 2019: Each has in common expertise, access to capital, aspirations for meaningful scale, and a dedication to high-quality local news and the communities it serves.”

There’s a marvelous mock newsreel near the start of Citizen Kane, the thinly veiled send-up of the life and times of William Randolph Hearst. The narrator begins: “Kane’s empire, in its glory, held dominion over 37 newspapers, 13 magazines, a radio network. An empire upon an empire. The first of grocery stores, paper mills, apartment buildings, factories, forests, ocean-liners — an empire through which for 50 years flowed, in an unending stream, the wealth of the earth’s third-richest gold mine.”

Now, 77 years after Citizen Kane’s premiere, Jeff Bezos is among the “first of” grocery stores — as are the Koch brothers of forests and paper mills and the Trump family of apartment buildings. The names and businesses may have changed, but powerful men and women are still compelled to defend, attack, or attempt to influence the news industry in the interest of free speech, business advantage, or political influence.

And while no longer the domain of the press baron, what we once called the American “newspaper chain” lives on in one form or another. It’s worth asking how long this will remain the case, what good these chains do for the communities they purport to serve, and — perhaps most important — what will replace them. With at least one major newspaper group on the block, 2019 may be a decisive year in the evolution of the U.S. newspaper chain. There’s also reason for optimism that a new form of local news industry collaboration has begun to take shape, this time at the intersection of community, philanthropy, and technology more than power, politics, or personality.

Let’s take a step back before looking forward. There was a reason that newspaper chains were built. Chains provided economies of scale in paper, printing, distribution, and access to capital. When they worked well, they also attracted and nurtured news and management talent. Where newspaper chains faltered was in investing effectively in their future, especially in the development of scalable digital news or advertising technology.

Despite it all, some news chains survive to serve investors by serving their communities. I’m one of many in our business rooting for McClatchy to acquire Tribune Publishing, in part because the former is run by a dedicated journalist with strong digital chops, and — full disclosure — a long-time Wall Street Journal colleague and friend of mine. Other newspaper groups seem designed to leech money from their news operations until they succumb to a slow and ignoble death. While outrage has subsided over staff reductions by Digital First Media at The Denver Post, The Mercury News, and other once-sizable newsrooms, it’s hard to believe that these stories will end well.

No matter how one handicaps a given newspaper or its owner, there’s little doubt that the economies of chain ownership are dwindling if not already largely extinct. In their place is emerging a broad array of innovative news, technology, and philanthropic collaboratives, each designed to build scale without the chains, pun intended. And this is where it gets exciting. Consider these efforts now planned for 2019: Each has in common expertise, access to capital, aspirations for meaningful scale, and a dedication to high-quality local news and the communities it serves:

  • Google and WordPress are working together on a low-cost content management system customized to the needs of small or startup newsrooms.
  • The American Journalism Project is raising tens of millions of dollars to support dozens of nonprofit community news organizations.
  • ProPublica is sharing its data and investigative expertise with local news organizations nationwide.
  • The Knight Foundation, America’s most generous news foundation, has redoubled its efforts to support local news at scale.

So is it just downhill sledding from here? (That’s a Rosebud allusion, for anyone who missed it.) Hardly. But these partnerships are emblematic of a healthy trend in which we should all invest our energy and/or our money. While it may not be right to dub John Thornton and Elizabeth Green (The American Journalism Project), Richard Gingras and Kinsey Wilson (Google News Initiative, WordPress), Alberto Ibargüen and Jennifer Preston (Knight Foundation), or Richard Tofel and Steve Engelberg (ProPublica) latter-day Citizen Kanes, surely they qualify in spades for the “Citizen” part.

Thanks to these efforts and others, there’s an opportunity in 2019 to invest more money, technical and business resources, and yes, more citizenship back into local journalism. As his prep-school buddy Jedediah Leland says to Charles Foster Kane about the publisher’s high-minded declaration of principles: “I have a hunch it might turn out to be something pretty important.”

Jim Friedlich is executive director of the Lenfest Institute for Journalism.

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